The song is highly complex. On the one hand it charts the temporal, moral development of the narrator from despair for a misspent life, through hope and a setback, to a oneness with Christ. On the other hand this oneness is shown to be eternal – outside of time – and so to exist independently of the narrator’s eventual coming to appreciate it. Throughout the song eternal oneness is made apparent through the bringing together in unity of pairs of things and through a further bringing together of those unities.
The train as Christ and the narrator
The most obvious image is that of the train. It can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Given the narrator’s initial adverse reaction to it:
‘… like it’s gonna sweep my world away’
it seems to represent death. The whistle is, then, a warning about death and perhaps the impending final judgment. But (with ‘Slow Train Coming’ in mind) the train can also be seen as bringing back Christ for his second coming at the end of the world.
The narrator’s position with respect to it is ambiguous. Most of the time he’s hearing it approaching, insisting the whistle be heard, and is amazed that some don’t seem to notice it – ‘Can’t you hear …?’ Unlike them, he at least is fully aware of its implication. At the end of the song, however, he seems no longer to be hearing it from a distance, but to be on it. This is because he becomes aware of the lights in his native land which he’d not otherwise be in a position to see. He is further associated with the train when the ‘it’ originally used to refer to it, becomes ‘me’. On his first hearing it, the train sounded as if it were ‘on a final run’, but this is overturned when the narrator wonders ‘if they’ll know me next time round’. The phrase ‘next time round’ perhaps serves to reinforce the narrator’s identity with Christ, contemplating his second coming.
Throughout the song the train seems to be associated with four or five women. For the most part the narrator treats them as separate individuals, his thoughts passing from one to another as time progresses. By contrast, the listener’s perspective seems to be non-temporal – eternal . Constant associations of the women with the train suggest that they, together with Christ and the narrator, are all one. The fulfilment of the narrator’s hope, and the dispelling of his anxiety, which only come about for the narrator at the end of the song are, from the eternal perspective, already in place.
The first association of the train with a woman, one which introduces the opposition between the temporal and the eternal, occurs in the second verse. Previously the pronoun used to pick out the train had changed from ‘it’ to ‘me’, but here the train becomes ‘she’. And then, in words borrowed from Poe’s ‘The Raven’, the whistle is said to blow ‘like she’s at my chamber door’. The train has become Lenore, whose loss for the narrator of that poem is impossible to accept. On one level, perhaps the train’s identification with the ghostly Lenore represents the narrator’s own religious doubts. But on another it leads to further identity associations which culminate in an eternal oneness.
Imperceptibly the identity of the Lenore figure changes to that of a particular woman (one assumes) in the narrator’s life:
‘You smiling through the fence at me’
At the same time there’s another pronoun change as ‘she’ becomes ‘you’. There’s a feeling of happy reminiscence about this, as if the narrator is remembering a childhood experience. Perhaps it’s his mother crouching down to smile at her son.
The line which follows:
‘Just like you always smiled before’
has a dual purpose. It seems to represent reliability or constancy. At the same time it reminds us of the repeated journeys of the train, and In so doing it serves to associate the woman with both Christ’s second coming and – given the narrator’s identity with Christ – with the narrator.
In the third verse the insistent sound of the whistle becomes ‘a sweet voice steadily calling’ and the train is now associated with a third woman, ‘the mother of Our Lord’. This may suggest further identity associations, for if the person smiling through the fence is in fact the narrator’s mother, one is led to identify the two mothers with each other. This in turn serves to identify the sons – so again the narrator is being identified with Christ.
A fourth woman is immediately introduced for we’re told in the very next lines that the whistle is blowing ‘like my woman’s on board’. Since the train is approaching, this would seem to presage a happy reunion. But its previous association with Poe’s Lenore makes any successful reunion doubtful in the narrator’s mind. Again the narrator can be seen to be in two conflicting states of mind – happy about the meeting , but doubtful it will happen. If the woman represents Christ, the narrator is again expressing an ambivalent attitude to religion.
This doubt is again apparent in the next verse when ‘my woman’ becomes ‘that woman’:
‘I wake up every morning with that woman in my bed
Everybody telling me she’s gone to my head’
The narrator seems to be distancing himself from her and recognises – in the ‘gone to my head’ – that he may be obsessed with something unreal. Nevertheless there’s a hint in the phrase ‘I wake up every morning’ that the woman, spiritually, is real. Waking up every morning, like the running of the train, and the smiling through the fence, is a repeated action – thereby associating ‘that woman’ with both the happiness of the smile and with Christ’s return.
The tree, the train, the rock and redemption
Christ permeates the song. Not only does the approaching train seem to represent his second coming, but his mother is explicitly mentioned, and the ‘sweet voice’ might also be taken to be hers.
By the final verse, the narrator’s religious doubts have disappeared. The pronoun used to pick out the woman, previously ‘you’, is now ‘we’:
‘I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing
That old oak tree, the one we used to climb’
We can assume that this would not be any old oak tree, but Christ’s cross, so the person being included in ‘we’, would seem to have to be Christ. That ‘we used to climb’ the oak tree implies that the narrator sees himself as having been in some sense crucified with Christ. Climbing the tree, as distinct from having been hung on it, represents not just being crucified, but bringing this about voluntarily. It is, in other words, Christ’s act of redemption. Taking into account the previous reasons for identifying the narrator with Christ, we can take him not just to be accompanying Christ, but actually to be Christ in the process of redeeming both the narrator and the world.
Climbing the tree is itself another repetitive action – it’s the one we used to climb. This can be interpreted in either, or perhaps both, of two ways. First, the narrator is being identified with Christ on his return, which is what the other repetitions seemed to be alluding to. Secondly, the act of redemption is being shown to be not just a one-off act in time, but an ongoing eternal act. Accordingly, whether consciously or not, the narrator is alluding to himself as an eternal being.
At the end of the song the whistle is said to be ‘blowing right on time’. The tone of the last line is positive because by this stage his uncertainty is gone and he is confident of redemption. In other words, because the narrator sees himself as redeemed, he no longer sees the train as about to ‘kill me dead’. For him now, death is merely a temporal end, not an eternal one.
The realisation of his redemption also replaces the uncertainty represented by his being a gambler. As the last verse closes, spiritually, he is no longer gambling – he is certain of his salvation.
In the light of this, the narrator’s use of the word ‘rock’ in the fourth line:
‘That Duquesne train gonna rock me night and day’
might be an instance of dramatic irony. At this stage his uncertainty is still dominant, yet ‘rock’, used in the gospels to stand for the strong foundation of the church, would indicate that all along – eternally – his salvation is secure.
From a position of personal security, his concern shifts to everyone else. As Christ he wonders if he’ll be recognised – if his dying for humanity will have borne fruit. Likewise he wonders if the cross is still taken notice of – ‘if that old oak tree’s still standing’.
The train as a sexual image
The concern for himself which the narrator originally felt seems to have been caused by guilt. This guilt is associated with sex. It’s probably out of guilt that he falsely denies he’s a pimp. He moves immediately from describing the train’s light as a ‘red light glowing’, which has obvious associations with pimping, to describing the whistle ‘blowing like she’s at my chamber door’ – another phrase with sexual connotations. On this level the ‘she’ referred to could be ‘that woman’ in his bed. One way or another the train has become a vast representation of sexual guilt.
In the final verse the word ‘glowing,’ in ‘The lights of my native land are glowing’, creates an atmosphere of warmth which might suggest the train is taking the narrator to his true, spiritual home. However the presence of ‘glowing’ here also reminds us of its earlier association with a red light. We can assume that the inhabitants are every bit as guilty as the narrator. Such a view is corroborated by our having been told the train is travelling ‘through another no-good town’. Since we’re likely to transfer the epithet ‘no-good’ to the native land, the implication now is that though the narrator might be saved, it’s by no means certain that the rest of the world is.
Sexual references continue with ‘that old oak tree’s still standing’. The tree is now a phallic image. But since the train can also be seen as bringing Christ and the tree can be seen as Christ’s cross, the suggestion would seem to be that there may be no distinction between the means of eternal death and the means of salvation. Another unity.*
Since the word ‘blowing’ appears twenty-two times, that alone would suggest it is important. Primarily the blowing of the whistle is to be seen as a precursor of the apocalypse:
‘Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart’
The idea of blowing the sky apart is then developed so that it is not just the world that’s going to end, but the narrator’s life as if he’s blown up by bomb:
‘You’re like a time bomb in my heart’
It’s significant that the addressee is compared to a time bomb, rather than any other sort of bomb. This implicit reference to temporal existence suggests that it’s only temporal existence which is about to cease – so by implication the narrator’s eternal existence will be untouched. Though he has yet to realise it, he is already redeemed.
The above line is preceded by:
‘You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going’
It seems paradoxical that the only thing that keeps him going should blow him up, but this reflects a similar opposition between temporal and eternal. Death in the former co-exists with the permanence of the latter. But equally, If the addressee is a woman, her sexuality can be seen as representing both his temporal life, and also his spiritual death.
It’s unclear who the addressee is but, in addition to being seen as a woman, it can also be taken to be the narrator himself. A repetition suggests this. In the third verse we’re told:
‘You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going‘
and in fourth:
‘I know exactly where you’re going‘
It’s quite likely that though there might appear to be two people going somewhere, there is really just one. If the narrator is addressing himself, then he’s effectively saying he knows where he himself is going. This would explain how he’s able to ‘lead you there myself at the break of day’. That it’s himself he’s addressing would also account for what otherwise might seem to be over familiarity in the apostrophising:
‘You old rascal”
which precedes ‘I know exactly where you’re going’. Jokily referring to himself as a rascal is ironic since the narrator is in fact ‘a rascal’, if not something worse.
While throughout the song ‘blowing’ seems to be primarily destructive, in the penultimate verse the narrator imbues it with an additional, more positive connotation. The line:
‘It’s blowing like it’s gonna blow my blues away’
can be taken to mean both that it will end his life – blow his blues away together with everything else – and conversely that it will bring him happiness by ending his sorrows. This represents a development in the narrator’s outlook. The train isn’t just interpreted as blowing ‘like it’s on a final run’ and ‘like she ain’t gonna blow no more’ – both of which can be taken to indicate approaching annihilation. The slight hint of happiness in ‘gonna blow my blues away’ is a precursor of his actual happiness – the culmination of the narrator’s development – in the final line:
‘Blowing like she’s blowing right on time’
While the train as a sexual image represents the narrator’s downfall, and as an image of Christ it represents his salvation, it is also a vehicle taking the narrator on a temporal journey. The final line with its implicit approval of the train’s imminent arrival, represents the narrator at last coming to terms with death. Over the course of the song he seems to have moved from a lack of certainty and fear of death, to hope, to over-confidence, to an ultimate identification with Christ.
He began with regret at what he saw as the approach of death:
‘Blowing like it’s gonna sweep my world away’
– the ‘my’ before ‘world’ indicating that he treasured his temporal existence over the eternal. Immediately this regret becomes less certain as he imagines that even as he stops he keeps on going. Movement is subsumed by stability, just as the eternal’s subsumes the temporal. Despite this there’s still no certainty. The defensive denials about gambling and pimping suggest that he continues to fear eternal death for a misspent temporal life. Hope returns with the line adapted from Poe, and this hope gives way to confidence, perhaps overconfidence, with the somewhat out of place:
‘You old rascal, I know exactly where you’re going’.
Ultimately the narrator identifies himself with Christ, thinking about his expected return:
‘I wonder if they’ll know me next time round’.
Even here, though, there’s an implicit worry – a concern represented by the fear of not being recognised. But when he announces that the whistle is blowing ‘like she’s right on time’, all doubt seems to have vanished. The narrator is literally at one with Christ.
*Thanks to Chris Gregory for his observations on sexual imagery in his own post on ‘Duquesne Whistle’. If I hadn’t read his piece, I probably wouldn’t have noticed any of it.